When the last frame of the documentary film, The Sinking of Lisbon Maru, was shown in London’s BFI Southbank on 15 August, 2023, long-lasting applause filled the movie theatre and tears welled up in the eyes of the audience.
Lisbon Maru was an armed Japanese cargo ship during the Second World War, and the documentary told the lesser-known story of hardship, horror, tragedy and courage surrounding the sinking of the ship and the people involved.
While transporting more than 1,800 British prisoners of war from Hong Kong to Japan, Lisbon Maru was torpedoed by a US submarine because the ship was not displaying the sign indicating it was carrying POWs. The ship sank off the coast of East China’s Zhejiang province on 2 October, 1942, when the British POWs were battened down and left to drown by the Japanese soldiers on board. Local Chinese fishermen saved 384 from the water, but some 800 lives were lost with the ship.
The special screening of the documentary, which was still in its final production stage, was organised for around 400 descendants, relatives, and friends of the British POWs. Many of the audience had previously been interviewed by the filmmaking team and most were in their senior years. Some brought their children, and some even flew from Australia.
Mark Weedon, 83, son of Martin Weedon of the Middlesex Regiment who survived the incident and lived until the age of 60, said: “I’m here to honour those who didn’t make it, as well as my father and my godfather, who did make it…and I hope people remember them.”
“It’s an untold history,” said Fang Li, producer of the documentary. “We see the bravery of our Chinese fishermen, we hear heartbreaking stories of individual British families one after another.”
Fang said he first heard about the Lisbon Maru story from a ferry captain in the Zhoushan archipelago, Zhejiang province, when he was shooting another film in the region in 2013.
Impressed by the story, Fang carried out a survey of the area in 2016. With sonar detectors mounted on drones, he located the wreck of the Lisbon Maru, and decided to make a film about it.
In the following years, Fang and his team contacted more than 380 relatives of the POWs and interviewed 120 of them, including the only two remaining British survivors, who have since died.
“While I was doing this I was totally touched by those young boys, the age of my son. So many of them lost their lives there,” he told the BBC in 2018 when he posted advertisements in British newspapers, looking for descendants of the POWs.
The film’s history consultant Tony Banham, a British historian based in Hong Kong, was among the early researchers of the incident and wrote the book, The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru: Britain’s forgotten wartime tragedy, in 2006.
“The true story of war is grief. It’s the impact on families. So many documentaries about war talk about the glamour of it, the aircraft, the tanks, the colourful explosions. But the real long-term impact of war is on the families of those who were killed and those who survive,” said Banham.
Zheng Zeguang, China’s ambassador to the UK, said at the screening: “One important inspiration we may draw from the Lisbon Maru incident is that peace does not come by easily and lives are the most precious. Today, against a complicated world which is far from being tranquil, let us remember that historical event, commit ourselves to increasing understanding, collaboration and friendship and make joint efforts toward world peace.”
The filmmaker also interviewed the last surviving Chinese fisherman Lin A’gen, who passed away in 2020, and documented the British POWs’ descendants visiting Zhoushan in 2019 and their reunion with Lin and other fishermen’s descendants.